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Improving Assertive Behavior

Chapter 6: Improving Assertive Behavior

Tools for Relationships

By: James J. Messina, Ph.D.


What is assertive behavior?
Assertive behavior is:
  • Standing up for one's rights no matter what the circumstance.
  • Correcting the situation when one's rights are being violated.
  • Seeking respect and understanding for one's feelings about a particular situation or circumstance.
  • Interacting in a mature manner with those found to be offensive, defensive, aggressive, hostile, blaming, attacking, or otherwise unreceptive.
  • Direct, upfront, (not defensive or manipulative) behavior. Those using assertive behavior confront problems, disagreement, or personal discomforts head on, and their intent is unmistakable to others.
  • Verbal “I” statements, where individuals tell others how they feel about a situation, circumstance, or the behavior of others.
  • Taking the risk of being misunderstood as being aggressive, abrasive, or attacking.
  • Being able to protect one's rights while protecting and respecting the rights of others.
  • Risk-taking behavior that is not ruled by fear of rejection or disapproval, but is directed by the rational belief that I deserve to stand up for my rights.
  • Rational thinking and the self affirmation of personal worth, respect, and rights.
  • A healthy style in which to conduct interpersonal relationships.
  • Finding a win win solution in handling problems between two individuals.


The Winning Solution with Assertive Behaviors

  • The you win and I lose solution is a passive solution where one individual gives up his rights to another.
  • The you lose and I win solution is an aggressive solution where one individual ignores the rights of another in order to get his way.
  • The you lose and I lose solution is a total passive solution where both individuals give up their rights. A healthy resolution is impossible.
  • The you win and I win solution is an assertive solution where the rights of both parties are recognized, respected, and utilized in reaching a healthy compromise.
Ten assertive rights of an individual:


1. I have the right to judge my own behavior, thoughts, and emotions and to take the responsibility for their initiation and consequence.
The behavior of others may have an impact upon me, but I determine how I choose to react and/or deal with each situation. I alone have the power to judge and modify my thoughts, feelings, and behavior. Others may influence my decision, but the final choice is mine.


2. I have the right to offer neither reason nor excuse to justify my behavior.
I need not rely upon others to judge whether my actions are proper or correct. Others may state disagreement or disapproval, but I have the option to disregard their preferences or to work out a compromise. I may choose to respect their preferences and consequently modify my behavior. What is important is that it is my choice. Others may try to manipulate my behavior and feelings by demanding to know my reasons and by trying to persuade me that I am wrong, but I know that I am the ultimate judge.


3. I have the right to judge whether I am responsible for finding solutions to others' problems.
I am ultimately responsible for my own psychological wellbeing and happiness. I may feel concern and compassion and good will for others, but I am neither responsible for nor do I have the ability to create mental stability and happiness for others. My actions may have caused others' problems indirectly; however, it is still their responsibility to come to terms with the problems and to learn to cope on their own. If I fail to recognize this assertive right, others may choose to manipulate my thoughts and feelings by placing the blame for their problems on me.


4. I have the right to change my mind.
As a human being, nothing in my life is necessarily constant or rigid. My interests and needs may well change with the passage of time. The possibility of changing my mind is normal, healthy, and conducive to self growth. Others may try to manipulate my choice by asking that I admit error or by stating that I am irresponsible; it is nevertheless unnecessary for me to justify my decision.


5. I have the right to say, I don't know.
I have the right to make decisions without being 100% certain of all the answers regarding these choices. If I were to evaluate every possible outcome of all decisions I made, chances are I would accomplish very little in my lifetime. No one can be expected to know all the possibilities of any particular behavior; therefore, I must make personal judgments as I see fit.


6. I have the right to make mistakes and be responsible for them.
To make a mistake is part of the human condition. Others may try to manipulate me, having me believe that my errors are unforgivable, that I must make amends for my wrongdoing by engaging in proper behavior. If I allow this, my future behavior will be influenced by my past mistakes, and my decisions will be controlled by the opinions of others.


7. I have the right to be independent of the good will of others before coping with them.
It would be unrealistic for me to expect others to approve of all my actions, regardless of their merit. If I were to assume that I required others' goodwill before being able to cope with them effectively, I would leave myself open to manipulation. It is unlikely that I require the goodwill and/or cooperation of others in order to survive. A relationship does not require 100% agreement. It is inevitable that others will be hurt or offended by my behavior at times. I am responsible only to myself, and I can deal with periodic disapproval from others.


8. I have the right to be illogical in making decisions.
I sometimes employ logic as a reasoning process to assist me in making judgments. However, logic cannot predict what will happen in every situation. Logic is not much help in dealing with wants, motivations, and feelings. Logic generally deals with black or white, all or none, and yes or no issues. Logic and reasoning don't always work well when dealing with the gray areas of the human condition.


9. I have the right to say, I don't understand.
One aspect of being human is being unable to fully understand all that occurs around me. I learn through experience, but experience also teaches that I cannot always understand what others mean or want. I cannot read minds, although others may try to manipulate me by providing hints or making subtle implications. I cannot anticipate and be sensitive to the unstated feelings, needs, and wants of others.


10. I have the right to say, I don't care.

Being human, I am imperfect. It is a fallacy to assume that I must strive to improve myself. Others may use this to manipulate me, saying that I am obliged to alter my behavior in a more positive direction; otherwise, I would be lazy, worthless, a degenerate, and unworthy of respect. If I erect goals of perfection, I undoubtedly will be frustrated and disappointed. Therefore, I have the right to say that I don't care to be perfect. The only sure way to prevent manipulation is to ask myself whether I am satisfied with myself or my performance, then, I can make an objective judgment as to whether I wish to change my behavior.

Consciousness Raising Questions on Assertiveness:

Answer the following questions in your journal. They are designed to help you assess your level of assertiveness:

  • How can I keep myself and others from being judgmental? Why is it so easy to judge another? How does my fear of judgment reduce my assertiveness?
  • Why do people demand a reason for others' behavior? How does constant rationalizing and defending my behavior affect my relationship with others?
  • How do I feel about being blamed for others' problems? How fair is this? What is the usual outcome of such blaming?
  • How comfortable am I with allowing others to have a change of mind? Why is it so important for others to be predictable? What is the worst thing that could happen if I changed my position midway through an argument?
  • How comfortable am I living in a situation in which the outcome is unknown? Why do I have such a great need for certainty in my decision making? How comfortable am I in taking risks?
  • Why is it so hard to admit to making a mistake? How well do I accept another's admission of making a mistake? What is the benefit of allowing others to make mistakes?
  • How easily do I express disapproval to others? How easily do I become devastated by such expressions of disappointment when they are pointed at me? Why does prior approval by others have to be a prerequisite before I take action?
  • What part does logic play in my life? Why does logic become so important in my arguments? How comfortable am I with the grays in life?
  • How important is mind reading in my life? How has unclear communication with others, assumptions, and jumping to wrong conclusions affected me in the past? How freely do I admit I don't understand the other person?
  • Why is perfection so important to me? How can I learn to live with another's imperfections? Why does it bother me to say, I don't care?

Roadblocks to assertiveness:


Roadblock: If I assert myself in any relationship, others will get mad at me.

Assertive Counterpart: If I assert myself the results may be positive, negative, or neutral. However, since assertion involves legitimate rights, the odds of having positive results are in my favor.


Road Block: If I do assert myself and others do become angry with me, it will be awful; I will be devastated.

Assertive Counterpart: Even if others become angry, I am capable of handling it without falling apart. If I assert myself when it is appropriate, I don't have to feel responsible for others' feelings. It may be their own problem.


Road Block: Although I prefer others to be straightforward with me, I am afraid that if I am open with them and say No, I will hurt them

Assertive Counterpart: If I am assertive, others may or may not feel hurt. Others are not necessarily more fragile than I am. I prefer to be dealt with directly and quite likely others will too.


Road Block: If my assertion hurts others, I am responsible for their feelings

Assertive Counterpart: Even if others are hurt by my assertive behavior, I can let them know I care for them while also being direct about what I want or need. Although at times, they will be taken aback by my assertive behavior, they are not so vulnerable and fragile that they will be shattered by it.


Road Block: It is wrong to turn down legitimate requests? Others will think I am selfish and won't like me.

Assertive Counterpart: Even legitimate requests can be refused assertively. Sometimes, it is acceptable to consider my needs before others. I can't always please others.


Road Block: I must avoid making statements or asking questions that might make me look ignorant or stupid.

Assertive Counterpart: It is okay to lack information or make a mistake; it just shows that I am human.


Road Block: Assertive people are cold and uncaring. If I am assertive I'll be so unpleasant that others won't like me

Assertive Counterpart: Assertive people are direct and honest and behave appropriately. They show a genuine concern for other people's rights and feelings as well as their own. Their assertiveness enriches their relationships with others

6 Myths of Nonassertive Behavior


1. Myth concerning Anxiety

Some people believe that overt signs of anxious behavior indicate weakness or inadequacy. These individuals assume that if they were to exhibit anxiety, they would be ridiculed, rejected, or taken advantage of by others. This is self-defeating, for the harder people try to camouflage anxious feelings, the harder it is to conceal the accompanying symptoms of trembling, sweating, flushing, etc.


One method of reducing anxiety is to acknowledge that anxious feelings are present. One may discover that others experience similar feelings under certain circumstances. If people can disclose their feelings of discomfort safely, they will find it unnecessary to expend so much energy disguising them; therefore, the anxiety will no longer interfere with the task at hand or impair their ability to cope in life.


2. Myth concerning Modesty
This myth consists of three parts: (1) the inability to acknowledge or say positive things about oneself, (2) the inability to accept compliments from others and (3) the inability to give compliments to others.


Some people fear that positive self statements seem egocentric. They fail to discriminate between the accurate representation of accomplishments and over exaggeration. Additionally, they may fear that once asserting themselves, they will have to live up to these expectations 100% of the time. Inability to self disclose positively may hinder their opportunities if they don't believe in themselves, it is unrealistic to expect others to believe in them.


People who are unable to receive compliments are indirectly damaging their self-respect. After several unsuccessful attempts, most people trying to give genuine compliments will hesitate, feeling uncomfortable in giving positive feedback. The intended recipient of the praise, no longer hearing positive feedback, may begin to question their self-worth.


Sometimes others may use insincere praise as a manipulative tool (You are such a great worker; by the way, could you mow the lawn.) However, assuming that all positive feedback is insincere, manipulative, or misleading will hinder both the development of a healthy lifestyle and a positive self-concept. Positive feedback is a powerful tool in this sense.


Some people are unable to provide others with positive feedback. They may be unaware of the potential positive effects, e.g., greater rapport or satisfaction in life. Sometimes others have difficulty delivering praise because they fear making themselves vulnerable. They may be unable to elicit feelings easily and openly. Perhaps this is an alien behavior because they have never received positive feedback themselves. Or, maybe there is a risk involved in developing more honest, open relationships.


For whatever reason, modesty does not enhance mutually satisfying, spontaneous interpersonal relationships.


3. Myth concerning Good Friend
This myth assumes that others can read my mind based upon our past relationship, e.g.: She should have known how I felt or My husband should have known how hard I have been working and given me Saturday morning free.


Lack of good, facilitative communication is apparent here. One must remember that individuals don't always respond in the same manner to the same situation.


This type of expectation will undoubtedly lead to guilt, resentment, hurt feelings, and misunderstanding within a relationship, assuming that others have known you long enough to know your mind or how you are thinking.


4. Myth concerning Obligation

This myth indicates that some people disregard their personal needs and rights due to a belief in personal obligations to others. These people put others ahead of themselves. Obviously the others' needs cannot always be met; however, those who routinely neglect to express their needs and rights, and who find themselves imposed upon quite frequently, are being restrained by this belief in the myth of obligation. They are often unable to make requests of others they project that others feel the obligation to meet their needs, too.


This myth, along with the others, facilitates neither self-respect nor the development of open, healthy relationships.


5. Gender role myths

Sometimes people behave in a particular manner due to various gender role expectations. This has been especially true for women. Is it feminine to be assertive or outspoken? The myth of obligation fits into this category, too. Due to erroneous expectations, many women are unable to refuse requests, even unreasonable ones. This may be true regardless of whether the request would interfere with their needs and rights.


Men have been encouraged to act upon their needs and rights aggressively, to fill the macho or controlling role in a relationship. Gender role expectations can color behavior, often to the opposite extreme. Some men may be inappropriately passive, while social pressures often call for men to take an aggressive stand.


Gender role expectations limit people's options for acting appropriately upon their beliefs, needs, and rights. They close the door to spontaneous, sincere interactions.

6. Myth concerning Strength of an Issue

It is sometimes risky to take a stand, even on issues about which people might feel quite strongly. It may be interpreted as pressuring others to accept one's beliefs, especially when discussing a controversial issue. People may not choose to take the risk of alienating themselves from others.


People who cannot discuss their beliefs assertively are closing the door to honest expression. The opportunity for a potentially stimulating exchange, which may afford them an opportunity for self growth, will not happen.

Steps to improve personal assertiveness


Step 1: Read the material in this chapter and then study the following behavior strategies involved in self-assertion training.

Three types of individual behavior are listed.


1. Nonassertive behavior: The act of withdrawing from a situation. This is a passive approach to a situation (life), resulting in:
  • Denial of one's feelings/opinions
  • Allowing others to choose for you
  • Guilt, anger
Examples of nonassertive language:
  • Oh, it's nothing.
  • Oh, that's all right; I didn't want it anymore.
  • Why don't you go ahead and do it; my ideas aren't very good anyway.


2. Aggressive behavior:  The act of overreacting emotionally to a situation. Aggression can also take the form of a lie or a misrepresentation of the facts. This is a self enhancing, egotistical approach to a situation (life) resulting in:

  • Put down feelings on the receiver's part
  • Not allowing others to choose for themselves, but choosing for them
  • Hostility, defensiveness on the aggressor's part and hurt, humiliation on the receiver's part
Examples of aggressive language:
  • You are a no good S.O.B.
  • Do it my way!
  • You make me sick.
  • That is just about enough out of you.
  • Others include sarcasm, name calling, threatening, blaming, insulting.


3. Assertive behavior: The act of declaring that this is what I am, what I think and feel, and what I want. This is a non-egotistical, active, rather than passive, approach to a situation (life) resulting in:

  • Open, direct self-expression of your thoughts and feelings
  • Allowing others to choose for themselves
  • Mutual satisfaction at achieving a desired goal
Examples of assertive language:
  • I am …
  • I think we should …
  • I feel bad when …
  • That seems unfair to me.
  • Can you help me with this?
  • I appreciate your help.


Assertion strategies:

Make known your desires and feelings.

Don't be sidetracked by others.

Make a short, clear, assertive statement of your goal, taking into account what others are saying by persistently repeating your goal:

  • Yes I understand [other's response] but I still want [state your goal]
Express feelings about a situation without threatening others:
  • Identify the situation: When you put me down I feel ...
  • Identify how you feel about it: I feel angry because...
  • Identify what you want: When you put me down, I feel angry. I want you to know that and to stop putting me down.

Make a nonassertive person open up.

  • The topic should be pursued in a gentle, probing manner: I don't understand why you are so up tight.


Body language as related to assertive behavior:

Eye contact and facial expression:

  • Maintain direct eye contact, appear interested and alert, but not angry.


  • Stand or sit erect, possibly leaning forward slightly.

Distance and contact:

  • Stand or sit at a normal conversational distance from the other.


  • Use relaxed, conversational gestures.


  • Use a factual, not emotional tone of voice. Sound determined and full of conviction, but not overbearing.


  • Choose a time when both parties are relaxed. A neutral site is best.


Further tips on assertiveness:
  • Assertive responses are characterized by the use of “I” statements instead of “You” statements.
  • Assertive responses are usually effective in getting others to change or reinforce behavior.
  • Assertive responses run a low risk of hurting a relationship.
  • Assertive responses neither attack the other's self-esteem nor put him on the defensive.
  • Assertive behavior prevents gunny sacking, i.e., saving up a lot of bad feelings.
Step 2: Read the following five sample situations and record in your journal whether each of the three responses given is aggressive, nonassertive, or assertive. (The answer key is at the end of this step)
Five sample situations:


Situation 1: Cousin Jessie, with whom you prefer not to spend much time, is on the phone. She says that she is planning to spend the next three weeks with you.
  1. We'd love to have you come and stay as long as you like.
  2. We'd be glad to have you come for the weekend, but we cannot invite you for longer. A short visit will be very nice for all of us.
  3. The weather down here has been terrible (not true), so you'd better plan on going elsewhere.


Situation 2: You have bought a toaster at a local discount house, and it doesn't work properly.
  1. I bought this toaster, and it doesn't work; I would like my money back.
  2. What right do you have selling me junk like this …?
  3. You silently put it in the closet and buy another one.


Situation 3: One of your children has come in late consistently for the last three or four days.
  1. I have noticed that for the last few days you have been a little late, and I am concerned about that.
  2. The next time you are late, you are moving out.
  3. You mumble to yourself and give dirty looks, hoping she/he will be on time tomorrow.


Situation 4: You are at the dinner table and someone starts smoking, which offends you.
  1. Hey, that smoke is terrible!
  2. You suffer the smoke in silence.
  3. I would appreciate it if you wouldn't smoke here.


Situation 5: You are across the room and someone is talking to you but not quite loud enough for you to hear.
  1. You continue straining to hear but end up daydreaming.
  2. You yell out, Speak up! I can't hear you if you talk to yourself.
  3. You stop, get the person's attention, and say, Would you mind speaking a little louder, please?



Answer Key for Step 2:
Situation 1: 1. Nonassertive  2. Assertive  3. Aggressive
Situation 2: 1. Assertive 2. Aggressive 3. Nonassertive
Situation 3: 1. Assertive 2. Aggressive 3. Nonassertive
Situation 4: 1. Aggressive 2. Nonassertive 3. Assertive

Situation 5: 1. Nonassertive 2. Aggressive 3. Assertive

Step 3: Read the following role playing situations and play a role in the various self-assertion techniques with a friend, partnber or significant other. Give yourself plenty of time to complete this step.


Ten role-playing situations for assertion training:Each of these situations involves a need for assertive behavior. Role-play each of these situations. Be sure to spend at least five minutes on each role.
  1. You just got home from work and your friend wants to go to the movies, but you would rather not.
  2. Your friend has begun smoking in the house, and it bothers you.
  3. You always run out of cash by Thursday. You are embarrassed about this and need to get more money from the person who controls the family finances.
  4. You are at a restaurant and you ordered a $15 steak that is tough; your friend is encouraging you to return it, but you don't like being pressured into doing such things.
  5. You and your friend are going to your parent's hometown for a vacation. Your friend has booked the flight for you; however, when you get to the airport you discover that you aren't booked, and that there are no seats available. You then find out that your friend forgot to book the flight.
  6. You have made a mistake in balancing the checkbook. Your partner finds the mistake and starts telling you off in front of your children (or neighbor).
  7. It is your turn to do the dishes. Before you even get up from the table your friend begins to tell you that the last time you did the dishes they remained dirty and crusty, and the kitchen was still a mess when you got through.
  8. You have been home from work for over an hour. You notice that your friend has been unusually quiet and distant with you.
  9. You and your friend are discussing religion, and your friend says something with which you strongly disagree.
  10. You are trying to watch an intense and absorbing movie on cable TV. Your friend is talking loudly on the telephone to a relative, and you are having trouble hearing the TV.


Step 4: After you and your partner complete the role-play activity in Step 3, answer the following questions in your journal:

  • How comfortable am I in being assertive?
  • What new behavior do I need to develop to be more assertive?
  • How awkward is it to confront my true feelings in a situation?
  • What part does my need for approval and fear of rejection play in my nonassertive behavior?
  • Why is it easier to role play being assertive than actually being assertive in real life?
  • Which of the myths concerning non-assertiveness do I hold to? How can I overcome these?
  • What roadblocks to assertiveness are present in my current behavior? How can I overcome these?
  • What are the differences between my assertive and my aggressive behavior? How can I ensure my assertive behavior is not really aggressive?
  • What body language cues do I need to develop in order to improve my assertive style?
  • What do I need to do to increase my assertive behavior further?

Step 5: If after completing Steps 1 through 4 you still lack healthy, assertive behavior, return to Step 1 and begin again.